Japan successfully uses steam to propel Moon spacecraft

Japan’s space agency Jaxa has announced it successfully used steam to propel its spacecraft that was launched as one of the payloads aboard Nasa’s Orion spacecraft.

“This is the world’s first successful orbit control beyond low-Earth orbit using a water propellant propulsion system,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) said in a statement.

The Japanese space agency confirmed that its water-powered CubeSat EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft (EQUULEUS) spacecraft performed the required manoeuvers to be in its planned orbit towards the second Earth-Moon Lagrange point (EML2) – a position situated beyond the Moon.

“As a result of the orbit maneuver control and orbit corrections before and after the lunar fly-by, the lunar fly-by was completed as planned on November 22 JST,” Jaxa said on Saturday.

Lagrangian points are positions in space where gravity and centrifugal force balance each other.

The balance of gravitational forces at this point allows the spacecraft to remain in place.

Researchers are particularly interested in EML2 as a candidate construction place for a deep spaceport for future deep space exploration.

Extended stays at EML2 beyond the Moon could provide significant radiation shielding for long-duration missions, experts have pointed out.

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“Spacecraft departing from EML2 can transfer to various orbits, such as Earth orbits, Moon orbits, and interplanetary orbits, with a tiny amount of orbital control,” Jaxa explained.

EQUULEUS is slated to reach the Lagrange point EML2 in approximately 1.5 years.

It was developed to demonstrate low-energy trajectory control technologies to reach EML2.

“We hope to test the technology for reaching this point using less fuel,” Jaxa had said.

It would study some of the phenomena caused by electromagnetic disturbances in the solar wind and measure the plasma in the Earth-Moon system.

“This was a difficult operation that had to be successful,” Professor Ryu Funase from the Jaxa Institute of Space and Astronautical Science said.

“I am proud of the EQUULEUS operation team, who were able to immediately complete the orbital control necessary for the lunar fly-by, just one day after the checkout operation shortly after launch,” Dr Funase said.

The spacecraft will also observe Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids, comets and mini-moons, as well as lunar impact flashes.

It is equipped with an ultra-high-speed camera, a dust sensor and an ultraviolet telescope as well.

“I feel we were able to succeed in this critical operation due to their careful preparation, including numerous back-up plans, and the ability to respond flexibly through training. We are now at the start line of the long voyage to the Lagrange point,” Dr Funase added.